Thursday, May 16, 2019

Be More Religious, Do More Good

Nearly 200 years ago, Rabbi Israel Salantar, the founder of the Musar movement, a philosophy that sought to move ethics back to the center of Jewish life, told his students that he had an important job for them. They were to go out and inspect the local matzah factory to certify that its products were indeed kosher for Passover. They talked amongst themselves before their rabbi arrived. They had spent weeks studying Passover’s restrictions and pouring over the words of the Talmudic tractate detailing the holiday’s laws.

They had argued whether or not legumes should be permitted on the holiday and how to sell the hametz. One of them asked the group, “How many minutes must transpire from when the flour and water are mixed until the matzah is taken out of the oven?” “Eighteen minutes,” another shouted. (In a nutshell the technical difference between bread and matzah is about the timing. Eighteen minutes or under its matzah. Nineteen its bread—not good bread, but bread nonetheless.)

The great sage then entered the class. “We are ready for this holy task,” they said in unison. “Rabbi,” one of his students asked. “Is there something we should specifically look for there?” “Yes. Most definitely,” said Rabbi Salanter. “When you get to the factory, you will see an old woman baking matzah. The woman is poor and has a large family to support. Make sure that the factory’s owners are paying her a living wage.”

The students stared at each other in astonishment. One asked, “What about making sure the preparation and cooking take no more than eighteen minutes?” “That is really not the most important thing, my students,” Salanter said. “The most important thing is to make sure that the person who is baking this matzah is properly taken care of. If she is not then the matzah factory is not worthy of being called kosher.”

People often define religiosity in terms of ritual scrupulousness. That makes sense given this week’s portion that details all of the major Jewish holidays: Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot and even the Omer period in which we now find ourselves. That makes sense given the importance people often ascribe to participation in Shabbat services.

On Friday evening I often hear, “Rabbi, where is everyone? Why are people not here at services? No one is practicing Judaism anymore. If we don’t make sure more people are more observant then our people are not going to be around much longer.” I usually respond: “What does being Jewish mean to you?” And they answer, “Observing Shabbat. Coming to services. Celebrating the holidays.”

I admit. I love our praying and singing. It offers me uplift. Shabbat prayer provides me the opportunity to connect with God and with people—in real time and in the real world, as opposed to the virtual world of Facebook and Instagram. It offers me a respite from the weekday worries. And when it works really well prayer helps to point me towards my ethical obligations.

Judaism does not view rituals as ends unto themselves. It does not view the Shabbat candles or the mezuzah as protective amulets that will ward away bad tidings. If people kiss the mezuzah, for example, when entering their home but then scream and yell at their family then they are missing the mezuzah’s greatest lesson. The theory is simple. If you kiss the mezuzah you are more apt to treat others with love and kindness. If you light the candles you are more likely to work to bring a measure of shalom to the world.

Rituals point to ethics.

Still it appears that an increasing number of American Jewish have become less enamored with our tradition’s rituals. They find yoga, or perhaps cycling, as more centering than Shabbat prayers.

So the question for today is can we do Jewish with lives less infused with Jewish ritual? At the very least we should expand our understanding of what it means to be religious. We should stop writing ourselves out of being religious because we do not light candles eighteen minutes before sunset or only eat matzah during Passover. We should instead ask ourselves the more challenging questions.

Do we pay our employees a living wage? Do we love the stranger? Do we give enough to tzedakah? Do we avoid speaking lashon hara—gossip? Do we treat our parents with respect?

That list is perhaps lengthier than the list of ritual commandments. It is certainly more challenging to observe than coming to services each and every Friday evening. But answer, “Yes, I do.” to even a few of these commands on even a somewhat regular basis and we can begin to call ourselves religious.

Perhaps we should become just as devout in calling our parents before Shabbat as lighting the candles. Perhaps we should be just as scrupulous with the words we speak about our neighbors as we do with the adornments of the Passover seder plate.

One day I dream of saying, “I serve the most religious congregation anyone can ever imagine. They all might not be here this Shabbat evening but they are busy making the world a better place with a word of kindness here and an extra dollar there.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Israel's Ordinariness is Extraordinary

Today the State of Israel celebrates 71 years of independence. Just saying that statement is a remarkable thing to utter. Israel’s 71st. Savor those words.

For all of the challenges and missteps, the achievements and triumphs, the disappointments and missed opportunities, the unrivaled successes and countless celebrations none come close to the feeling, the remarkable gift and the sense of gratitude that Israel celebrates 71 years of independence. The dream of generations of Jews is now a reality. For 2,000 years we dreamed that we would one day return to the land of Israel. This still figures prominently in our prayers. The Seders we only recently celebrated conclude with the words L’shanah habah b’yerushalayim—next year in Jerusalem.

Today, I could say, “I am leaving tomorrow morning to fly to Israel.” I am not doing that of course, but if I were, the response would not be, “Wow. What a miracle.” But instead, “Which airline? Are you flying El Al? Are you flying out of JFK?” Another would chime in, “Don’t fly El Al. It’s the worst. People are constantly climbing over you as you are trying to sleep. You should fly Turkish Air instead.”

Others would ask, “Where are you staying?” More would then offer advice. “You should stay at the King David. It’s historic. You should spend more days in Tel Aviv. Go to Mitzpe Ramon and check out the Negev desert. Make a reservation at Zahav.” Actually Zahav is located in Philadelphia and was recently named the best restaurant in America. How remarkable is that. The best restaurant in America features Israeli cuisine.

We should take in the sheer ordinariness of these conversations.

Thousands of years ago we were almost destroyed. We then mourned the destruction of Jerusalem. And now, in our own age, we talk about visiting Israel as if it’s just another trip to another great country. We argue about flights and hotels, restaurants and sites. For all the discussions and debates we could have about Israel’s policies and the never ending conflict with the Palestinians, most recently after Hamas fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza, on this day we should breathe in not the miracle of the State of Israel but instead its ordinariness.

We wish for it to always be extraordinary, to fulfill our every dream, to live up to the prayers we sing about it, but on this day we should hold on to the ordinary. And that very ordinariness should be what takes our breath away. It is not the miracle but the ordinariness which is the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. It affirms the Declaration of Independence’s words: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

Israel’s matter of fact-ness may be its greatest achievement. Our children do not know of a time when there was not a sovereign State of Israel. I in fact do not know of such a time. Some might be saying to themselves, “Beware of taking Israel for granted. Israel is surrounded by enemies.” Yes. Indeed it is. But I do not wish to dwell on the threats arrayed against Israel or even what many commentators call the growing divide between American Jews and Israel—something about which I remain acutely worried. These are not my focus on this day, and on this occasion.

All I wish is for us to breath in what a unique time we live in. We live in a time when we can hop on a plane and go to Israel. Or not. We live in an age when the State of Israel can be taken for granted. And this may very well be its greatest success.

We can argue about many, many things. We are Jews of course. We can debate about what Israel does and does not do. And we should certainly continue these debates—with passion and with love. And we can also argue about the mundane and inconsequential. We can talk about flight times and restaurant reviews.

And we can regale each other about visits to Tel Aviv’s beach and taking in Jerusalem’s desert evenings. On this day that’s all I need. On this day that is all I wish to hold on to.

Israel is 71!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Books of Loss

Yesterday marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day. It is the day set aside to remember our people’s loss at the hands of the Nazis’ murderous hatred. As we remember this devastating loss, we cannot help but affirm that antisemitism is still real and most tragically, still murderous.

Last year antisemitic attacks doubled in the United States. Six months ago, we witnessed the deadly attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue and this past Shabbat another at a San Diego area synagogue. It is sadly evident that we must remain on guard against antisemitism. The Board is diligently working on security upgrades for our own synagogue. And there will be security at upcoming services.

While we must remain forever vigilant and while we must improve security at Jewish institutions the most important response to terror remains the same. We must never bow to fear. And we must continue to proclaim, we are proud to lead Jewish lives.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the leader of the Poway Chabad community, said:
I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.
Amen!

Again and again, we remember. I recall a few of the individual lives affected by the Holocaust. I urge you to read the stories of this year’s torchlighters. At this year’s Yom HaShoah ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad VaShem, these six survivors were chosen to light the six memorial lights.

Their tales represent extraordinary stories of survival and loss. To these stories I wish to add another. It is the story about how my favorite children’s book, Curious George, came to be.

When the Nazi party was gaining popularity in Germany, Hans Augusto Rey, a Jewish salesman, knew he had to leave so he fled to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. There, he met and married his old flame, Margret, who had also come there to escape the Nazis. Together, the couple soon moved to Paris in 1935.

When World War II broke out, the Reys realized they could not stay in Paris. They needed to make other plans. They again fled, narrowly escaping Paris a few hours before the Nazis invaded. They rode from Paris on a pair of bicycles that Hans had made. On their backs they strapped some food, a few of their possessions, and the manuscript of a children’s book the couple had been working on—a book about a mischievous monkey named George.

The Reys made it across the Swiss border and eventually found their way to New York, where they first published Curious George. That book, and its sequels, have been translated into dozens of languages—including the Reys’ native Yiddish. Children are still reading about George, his adventures, and the understanding, but always helpful Man with the Yellow Hat.

On this occasion, as I reflect on Yom HaShoah, I wonder how my childhood might have been different if this book did not accompany me, if the Reys had suffered the same fate as the six million. I would never have heard my mother reading over and over again, “George promised to be good. But it is easy for little monkeys to forget.” I wonder how my life would have been different if my mother did not affirm my curiosity through the Man with the Yellow Hat.

A book affirmed my nature and applauded the lesson that discoveries, and learning, begin with curiosity and that most importantly making mistakes, and even making a mess, accompanies curiosity, discovery and learning.

Today, I wonder how many other books could have accompanied me. I imagine there could have been six million more books.

The Holocaust haunts our people. It remains a library of loss.

The hatred continues.

But my curiosity, and embrace of life, remain undeterred.



Friday, April 26, 2019

Let's Start Fixing the World

Another Hasidic story. Perhaps this one is my favorite. I first heard it told by Rabbi Naomi Levy.

A wealthy man approached the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and asked if he could meet Elijah the Prophet, the messenger of God who rose to heaven in a chariot of fire. The man had heard rumors that Elijah wanders the earth to bless people in need of his help. The wealthy man had achieved great success and counted many accomplishments to his name. Everything he ever wanted, he was able to acquire.

At first the Baal Shem Tov insisted he didn't know how to find Elijah. And then one day the Baal Shem Tov said to the man, "You can meet Elijah this Shabbat. Here is what you must do: Fill up your coach with a Shabbat feast. Pack bread, wine, chicken and vegetables. Pack cakes and fruit and delicacies and bring it all to a certain hut in the forest and ask if you can spend the Shabbat there."

On Friday afternoon the wealthy man rode his coach along a winding forest trail until he came upon the hut the Baal Shem Tov had told him about. He knocked on the door and a poor woman in tattered clothes answered. The wealthy man asked if he could spend the Shabbat with her family.

The husband and his wife were overjoyed to have a Shabbat guest even though there was barely enough food to go around. Their emaciated children giggled with excitement. Then the wealthy man showed them the feast he had brought. For a moment they froze at the sight of such abundance. And then the children cheered, the wife wept with joy, and her husband shouted with excitement.

That Shabbat eve was like no other this family had ever experienced. They ate well, drank well, sang, prayed. The wealthy man kept staring at the poor father. Could this be Elijah? He asked the poor man to teach him Torah, but the man was illiterate. The father ate until his belly was full, he drank and belched and picked his teeth. This couldn’t be Elijah. All through that night and the next day the wealthy man waited impatiently for Elijah to appear. But there was no sign of the holy prophet anywhere.

On Saturday night, as Shabbat came to an end, the wealthy man was fuming. "The Baal Shem Tov deceived me. He made a fool of me." And then he said his goodbyes to the family and raced outside in a huff. As he was stomping away, the wealthy man's boot got stuck in the mud. As he leaned down to pick it up, he overhead sounds of rejoicing coming from inside the window. The children were jumping up and down and squealing with joy over the most wonderful Shabbat they had ever seen.

The wife said to her husband, "Who was that man who brought us all that food?" Her husband replied, "Don't you see? It was Elijah the Prophet who came to bless us."

Suddenly the wealthy man saw who Elijah was.

"Elijah is me," he said to himself. “Elijah is me.”

And Elijah can also be you.

If we only sing to Elijah at the conclusion of our Seders, if we only sing “Eliyahu HaNavi” when we make Havdalah, then we have not come to understand the true meaning our rituals and songs.

Whose home will you visit this coming Shabbat? Whose hungry bellies will you help to fill in the coming days? Whose soul will you begin to repair?

Elijah can be you.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Tell Your Story

A Hasidic story. It is among my favorites. When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people was threatened by tragedy he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and a miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and once again, a miracle was accomplished.

Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. There he pleaded with God, saying, “I do not know how to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.” Once again, a miracle was accomplished.

When it was the turn of Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his chair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story. That must be enough.”

And this too was sufficient.

Central to our Passover celebrations is the telling of the story of our going out from Egypt. Judaism believes in the power of the story. It is not mere entertainment. It is fundamental to instilling values. We tell and retell. We remember. And we are inspired to act.

We cast ourselves in the story. The Haggadah proclaims, “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. Not only were our ancestors redeemed by the Holy One of Blessing but even we were redeemed with them.”

This year, tell another story as well. Tell your story. Tell the story of how you, your parents, your grandparents or even your great grandparents went out from wherever your family emigrated from and how they made it to this country. And then how you made this great country your home.

And perhaps this too will be sufficient.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Moon's Pull

I am thinking about the moon.

It is because of the moon that we read about leprosy for two weeks rather than one. Most years this week’s portion, Metzora, is combined with last week’s, Tazria, in a double portion. Both are about leprosy. This year, however, is a leap year when we add an entire month. The month is added in the spring prior to Purim. Why?

The reason is simple. Our holidays are tied to the seasons of the 365 day solar calendar. Passover, for example, is the spring harvest festival. Sukkot marks the fall harvest. If we were only to follow the 354 day lunar calendar, as our Muslim neighbors do, the holidays would wander throughout the seasons. Then every year the holidays would be eleven days earlier than the previous year. And then, for example, Passover might occur during the winter.

Its connection to spring, our agricultural roots, and most importantly the earth would be lost. Therefore every two or three years we add a month. So Rosh Hashanah can wander between the start of September and the beginning of October but no further. Each holiday moves within a month’s window of the solar calendar.

During leap years, like this year, the double portions are separated into single portions. We therefore spend far more time reading Leviticus. So now we have to spend two weeks examining leprosy. And this is an unfortunate occurrence, to be honest.

But I am comforted by the moon.

The rabbis teach. The moon complained to God saying, “The sun is so much bigger than me. No one can even see me during the day.” God comforted the moon and said, “By you shall Israel reckon the days and years.” (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 60b)

Apparently we offer comfort to each other. Israel and the moon are joined. While the sun sustains life, the moon points to our celebrations.

The moon sustains our spirit.

Soon we will gather around our Passover seder tables. Take a moment to look outside. If it is a clear night, you will see a full moon. In fact, you will see a full moon on the first night of Passover, every year. The fourteenth of Nisan, and the fourteenth of every Hebrew month coincides with a full moon. So you will see a full moon on the first night of Sukkot and on Purim for that matter.

The moon marks our holidays. Without it we could not find our way. Without it we would be unable to wander through our celebrations.

This year especially look at the moon with a sense of pride. Although Israel’s unmanned rocket missed its lunar landing, it came very close. Some seventy years ago, when Israel’s existence seemed more hope than reality, more dream than achievement, when the state faced untold challenges, who could have even imagined that one day Israel would send a rocket into space? Who would have dared dream that in the week when Israelis once again exercised their democratic right to vote and yet again affirmed the vision of “to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem” they would send a rocket to crash into the moon?

The rabbis teach: “By you shall Israel reckon the days and years.”

At this year’s seder, get up from your tables, and look up at the moon and say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Next year in Jerusalem—indeed!


Thursday, April 4, 2019

(Re)Kindling the Spark

I just returned from the Reform rabbis’ annual convention. Imagine 600 rabbis in one room! Imagine the lengthy conversations. Imagine all the sermons and schmoozing. This year the convention was held in Cincinnati. It was wonderful to return to Hebrew Union College where Susie and I studied for four years. It was moving to return to the historic Plum Street Temple where we were ordained 28 years ago.

Plum Street Temple was completed in 1866. Its rabbi, Isaac Meyer Wise, founded America’s Reform movement. Isaac Meyer Wise Temple, as it is now called, is an extraordinarily beautiful sanctuary. Its architecture is a combination of Byzantine and Moorish styles that was then popular in Germany. It is meant to echo the golden age of Spanish Jewry. It was Rabbi Wise’s belief that America held a similar promise.

Will my grandchildren feel similarly?

We gathered for services on Monday morning. I was struck by countless incongruities. We sat in what was once the stronghold of classical Reform Judaism where English prayers (and German) were central, yet our prayers were marked by an abundance of Hebrew. Our singing was accompanied by guitar. We sang niggunim, wordless melodies developed by Hasidic rebbes who were an anathema to our founders. I stared at the gleaming pipe organs, whose voice once filled Reform synagogues but now stood silenced. Nineteenth century Reform leaders forbade tallis and kippah, yet virtually every rabbi wore these traditional garbs.

We read this week’s Torah reading, Tazria. It contains chapters and verses about leprosy. Leviticus is obsessed with rituals and in particular ritual cleanness. It enumerates countless details about what renders something unclean. Our movement’s first platform, written in 1885, wandered through my thoughts:
We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.
They believed the ethical should be elevated above the ritual.

I longed for new wisdom. Colleagues quoted Hasidic masters. Rabbis cited modern poets. We danced and clapped to our prayers. We often started our sessions late. The decorum and punctiliousness of our founders slipped away.

Would they recognize what they birthed?

I wish to bind the ritual to the ethical. I long for our prayers to feed our morals.

Every evening was marked by the testimony of remarkable and courageous leaders.

Roberta Kaplan, a civil rights lawyer and Amy Spitalnick, director of Integrity First for America, spoke about how they are using American law to go after the Nazis who organized the antisemitic violence in Charlottesville. Freedom of speech should not protect conspiring to do violence. We listened to Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He offered compelling words about the need for criminal justice reform. Is the measure of a nation’s greatness discovered in how it treats those accused of breaking its laws? Alabama’s prisons accuse us of falling short. Last night we were honored to meet Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court Case legalizing same-sex marriage. It is difficult to imagine the courage he must have summoned to allow a court to judge his love. Should anyone offer judgments about another’s love?

The prophetic spirit is alive. It is part of my prayers.

There is much to repair in our world. I pray for strength.

Would Isaac Meyer Wise recognize what he founded?

I am confident. He would recognize the spark.

And that is what we must kindle—in each and every generation, again and again.

I pray for courage.


Monday, April 1, 2019

The Ghost of Bipartisanship

What follows is this past week's sermon about what I learned and felt at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

This past week I traveled to Washington DC attend the AIPAC Policy Conference. AIPAC is America’s pro-Israel lobby. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is steadfast in its bipartisanship as it lobbies in particular Congress about all manner of things beneficial to Israel. It has been crucial about gaining funding for Iron Dome. It support is critical for Israel’s defense needs. So let me offer some highlights from the conference, as well as some observations and of course a few my opinions.

On the first day, President Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This was hailed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Let’s unpack this decision. Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. Prior to the war its heights served as a nemesis to Israel given that Syrian soldiers shelled Israeli kibbutzim from there. In addition it served as a buffer to absorb Syria’s attack during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In an age of missiles some have argued that the heights are no longer important as a strategic asset. And there were occasional discussions about trading the territory for peace with Syria. Nonetheless the vast majority of Israelis never favored such an idea.

The Golan is some of the best, and most beautiful, hiking in all of Israel. There water flows from the heights, sometimes cascading down waterfalls, which are extraordinary to swim in. The water eventually makes its way to the Kinneret—the Sea of Galilee. Water that is needed for much of Israel’s population starts its journey in the Golan. For decades Israel has been sovereign over the territory. The world of course did not recognize this but Israel’s sovereignty was long an established fact. Especially in recent years, after the collapse of Syria and given the ongoing civil war there, no one entertained the idea of relinquishing control over the Golan Heights.

President Trump’s decision was a recognition of what was in fact the case. Some might argue that it was ill-timed or that its only purpose was to help Bibi win the election, and while this may be true, the decision was rather inconsequential. Perhaps you can argue that it emboldened Israel’s right wingers who see in this the beginnings of their desire to annex the West Bank. Maybe. But Israelis don’t lump these territories together. The Golan and the West Bank are not the same. Perhaps the decision was a finger in the eye of Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, who are drawing closer to Israel. Again maybe. Don’t read too much into this decision. There are far greater things to get worked up about.

AIPAC also advocated for the US to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Again the Trump administration obliged. This decision was far more consequential. There is good and bad about the embassy move. First the good. Israel should get to decide where its capital is. It has always been in Jerusalem. It’s not in East Jerusalem, the territory captured from the Jordanians in 1967. It’s in West Jerusalem. That’s where the Knesset is. Too many, most especially Palestinian leaders, deny the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Jerusalem is not just any city for us. Too many speak about Zionism and the State of Israel as if it is some European colonial implant in the Arab Middle East. It is not. Jerusalem exemplifies our return to Zion. For years US presidents refused to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move our embassy there. President Trump finally did this and he received a lot of adulation and praise from the 18,000 AIPAC attendees for this decision. Again the vast majority of Israelis are also grateful. Most Israelis just want to live in a state like all other states with a capital city that is not deemed illegitimate by world leaders.

Still there are worries about the embassy move. Palestinians hope for the capital of their state to be in Jerusalem as well. They also claim this city as their own. For those who favor the two state solution and for those who believe that a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the State of Israel is the best thing for Israel, and this is by the way AIPAC’s official position, Trump’s decision seemed to push this reality farther away. You can argue that moving the embassy to Jerusalem will force Palestinian leaders to come to terms with the reality of Israel and that this reality is here to stay and not going anywhere. That is now my hope. My fear however is that this decision, as much as I loved it in my Jewish kishkes, will cause those on both sides who say this place is only mine to become even more intransigent. We have to figure out how to share parts of the land with our Palestinian brethren so that we can find some measure of peace.

I admit that seems like a far off dream. Given that this week Hamas fired rockets from Gaza into Tel Aviv peace seems more like a delusion. Then again Gaza is not the West Bank and Hamas is not the Palestinian Authority. Israelis understand these distinctions. Hamas aims to destroy Israel. It rules over Gaza with an iron hand. It kills its own people when they protest, a recent fact that went largely unreported. A rocket fell on a family’s home. Children were injured. Children were targeted. Netanyahu hurried back to Jerusalem and gave instead a video address to the conference attendees. The IDF called up reserves. The air force struck at Hamas leaders. Why? What was different this time? Hamas has fired rockets before. It was because the rocket traveled farther and this may be the more important point, it somehow evaded Iron Dome. The worry is that this could represent a technological breakthrough.

And this cannot stand. There should be no debate about this fact. Israelis should be free to live in safety and security. And their state has every right to safeguard its citizens’ safety and security.

Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main rival in the coming elections, began his speech by praising Bibi’s decision to return to Israel. It is true that the poverty and despair in Gaza is overwhelming. It is also true that Hamas is largely responsible for perpetuating these conditions. Still I continue to say, something has to be done for ordinary Gazans if for no other reason than to bring some measure of quiet along Israel’s southern border.

Gantz also spoke to diaspora Jews. He spoke about the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel. He said the Western Wall is big enough for all of us. This is something where Netanyahu has abandoned us. The lack of recognition of other streams of Judaism in the Jewish state is a tragic injustice. Too many Reform Jews like ourselves are made to feel second class in Israel. Why should we not be able to pray exactly as we do here in the Jewish state? It makes no sense. Politics should no longer upend making progress towards a greater sense of Jewish pluralism in the State of Israel.

I thought Gantz’s speech was the best of the conference. His most powerful point was one about unity. He spoke about that being our secret weapon. This is what he argued has enabled Israel to survive. Unity is also what drives AIPAC. Democrats and Republicans are meant to be united in their support for Israel. And this brings me to my greatest worry and fear. Our unity is unraveling. This was by far the most troubling and upsetting take away from the conference. The Democrats who spoke appeared to be playing defense and said in effect, don’t worry, we still love Israel. Republicans were on offense, saying those guys don’t really love Israel. We love Israel the best. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat this development should be extraordinarily troubling.

The bipartisanship that is the cornerstone of AIPAC’s mission is slipping away. This was so evident when Meghan McCain, Senator John McCains’ daughter, and Senator Joe Lieberman took the stage. This is where we are at? I thought. We have to conjure up the ghost of John McCain to demonstrate bipartisanship. We have to bring out his good friend and Democrat, and who also should have been his running mate, to say look how bipartisan we are. This is the best, and perhaps only way we say, look a Republican and Democrat can stand on the stage together and profess their love and commitment to Israel. Our unity is slipping away.

So let me say this in closing. To Democrats I say loving Israel and making excuses for antisemites cannot go hand in hand. To Republicans I say loving Israel is not necessarily the same as loving Bibi and his vision for Israel. We better figure out how to hold on to all of these things at the same time because what has served the alliance between the United States and Israel so well for so long is that it has always transcended Republican and Democrat. Let’s figure out some measure of unity for Israel’s sake and perhaps for ours as well.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Spiritual Cravings

Why should we observe the commandments? Because God says so. This is the wisdom of the Hasidic sages.

In this week’s portion Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed because they offer a strange fire. Why is it called strange? Because God did not command it. The Sefat Emet, Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, comments:
The most important component in the performance of commandments is the fact that one performs them because he was commanded to, rather than any lofty intentions he has in performing them. The proof is here, in that we see Nadav and Avihu, who were great sages, surely had the most lofty of intentions, yet they were punished for doing something they had not been commanded to do. How much more, then, is the reward of a person who fulfills a commandment solely because it was commanded by God, even though he knows nothing about the hidden intentions involved.
Such wisdom contradicts our modern sensibilities. We want to uncover the reasons for the commandments. We wish to unravel God’s intentions.

Why keep kosher?

Because unkosher animals are not healthy. Pigs carry trichinosis. Lobsters are bottom feeders. Owls eat rats. Such are the explanations we offer to justify these ancient laws.

This week the Torah also reveals the lists of permitted and forbidden animals. Nowhere does it say anything about the character of these animals. There is a list of permitted animals: “These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud—such you may eat.” (Leviticus 11) And then there is a list of forbidden animals.

Nowhere does the Torah offer an explanation. Nowhere do we gain a glimmer of why.

Nowhere is there a discussion of the many reasons people so frequently offer. Eat these animals. Don’t eat those animals. That’s it. That’s all the Torah offers.

Why keep kosher? Because God says so.

Then again there is nothing like the taste of crispy bacon. And lobster is so wonderfully delicious.

Why then not eat it? Because God says so.

And so we must now decide. We must ask ourselves, “Do I wish for God to gain some rule over my daily life?”

It is a wonderful, and then again strange, or perhaps mysterious idea to ponder. Saying no to something we love might be the beginning of letting God into our lives.

Why keep kosher? Because God says so.

Is that really enough? Some rabbis suggest that is the only reason that matters.

Then again why does God even care about what we eat?

Because God says so.

Decide if that is the sustenance you seek. Decide if that is the food your soul craves.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Shouting Out Kindness

Today is the holiday of Purim. It is a day that is marked by revelry. And yet the costumes and masks we wear obscure a darker theme.

A quick reminder. A long time ago in the land of Persia a wicked man named Haman wanted to kill all the Jews, but Queen Esther, through courage and wit, as well as the persistence of her uncle Mordecai, saved the Jewish people and killed Haman and all of his followers. The end. Let’s party.

The Torah reading for this day recalls the story of Amalek who attacked the Israelites during their journey through the wilderness. The Amalekites killed the weak, the elderly and the children, who walked in the back of the Israelites. What kind of person attacks the infirm? What kind of person kills the stragglers? And so Amalek has become synonymous with all evil-doers.

In fact the Jewish tradition draws a line from Amalek to everyone, and anyone, who sought to kill the Jewish people. It sees history’s worst and most despicable genocidal killers as Amalekites. It sees Haman as his descendant. How curious then that we don’t drown out Amalek’s name. And yet every time we hear Haman’s name we shake our groggers. Let no one even hear the name of the man who tried to kill us.

Likewise New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, refuses to utter the name of the man who murdered 50 Muslim worshippers during their Friday prayers. He attacked people while they were bowed in prayer. Like Amalek he attacked people from behind. And just as we drown out Haman’s name so must we drown out the name of every evil doers. It is what we should do whenever someone guns down others, wherever that might be, whether it be in church, synagogue, mosque or temple. Too many know the names of the murderers who killed at a Sikh Temple in Milwaukee, a church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh and now a mosque in Christchurch.

Just as we must drown out the evil-doers’ names we must embrace those who now feel victimized and hurt. I still recall the outpouring of love and support for our community after the attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Likewise we must now reach out to our Muslim neighbors and friends. Recall the sympathetic words we received. Recall the words of our local church leaders. Remember especially how those words eased our pain. Embrace our Muslim neighbors who are now touched by an extra measure of grief.

We are so quick to condemn hate. It is so easy to call out antisemitism. Let it be just as simple to shower our brothers and sisters with love and support. Tomorrow afternoon the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island is organizing a show of solidarity and support outside local mosques. I will join them at the Islamic Center of Long Island. Regardless of our differences, at this moment and at this hour, I plan to stand with neighbors during their time of grief. I plan to offer my support when they feel so vulnerable. We are bound together by a shared commitment to faith. We are drawn together by a shared attachment to our local community.

Not so long ago people of other faiths offered me their support. Their presence aided my prayers. Their solidarity lifted my spirits. How can I not offer similar support?

Let the names of these evil-doers be erased.

Let our kindness never be blotted out.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

It's Because of the Mountain

This week we begin reading the Book of Leviticus, called in Hebrew Vayikra.  The opening words are: “Vayikra el Moshe—And God called to Moses.”  Curiously the last letter, alef, of the first word, vayikra, is calligraphed smaller in the Torah scroll.  Why is the alef smaller?

There are no good explanations for this tradition.  There are however plenty of sermons and interpretations.    

The Hasidic rebbe, Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, offers an answer. He discovers a beautiful lesson in the small letter alef.  He teaches:
The letter alef is small just like Moses made himself small.  Even though Moses attained the greatest heights ever reached by man, he was unmoved by that fact and remained as humble as ever. When a person stands at the top of a mountain, he does not boast about how tall he is, because it is the mountain that makes him so tall.  By the same token, Moses felt that whatever he had accomplished was due to God, and he had no reason to feel proud of his achievements.
Imagine if the world had more people like Moses.  Imagine if most people believed that all of their achievements were because of others.  Imagine if we believed that our accomplishments and successes were because we are standing on a mountain top fashioned by God?

It’s an image worth pondering.  It’s a world worth working towards.

It’s only because of others.  It’s really only because of the mountain.  Our achievements are because others lifted us.

On whose shoulders do we stand?  To whom should we offer thanks?



Saturday, March 9, 2019

Antisemitism is a Sin: That's All There is to It

What follows is this week's sermon about antisemitism.

Typically I make every effort to be even handed when discussing contemporary controversies. But when it comes to antisemitism I do not think we should make any such attempt. And so I wish this evening to speak about Representative Ihlan Omar who continues to rely on antisemitic tropes when talking about Israel. She accuses Jews of dual loyalties and suggests that support for Israel is only, for example, about the Benjamins. She has offered apologies, but I think there is something more problematic at work. Representative Omar does not criticize Israel’s policies. For her Israel is more a myth than a reality, more a caricature than a living democratic state struggling with its many challenges.

Bret Stephens writes: 
For those who don’t get it, claims that Israel "hypnotizes" the world, or that it uses money to bend others to its will, or that its American supporters "push for allegiance to a foreign country," repackage falsehoods commonly used against Jews for centuries. People can debate the case for Israel on the merits, but those who support the state should not have to face allegations that their sympathies have been purchased, or their brains hijacked, or their loyalties divided.” (The New York Times)
If Representative Omar had visited Israel and even if she had come back with critical reports we might be understanding, although of course stung by her criticism. She has not. Instead she speaks about Israel as if it’s a cartoon where the good guy and bad are all-too obvious. It is a sad thing to say, and many scholars have noted, but Israel has become the Jew among nations. Antisemitism is now disguised as anti-Israel sentiment. We hear, “I am not antisemitic. “I am anti-Israel. I stand against Zionism.” But Zionism, and Israel, is the belief that the Jewish people have a right to a homeland of their own and that the place where our people exercises that right is in our ancestral land.

Such Zionist commitments are not statements about what may or may not constitute Palestinian rights. One can affirm the right of Palestinians for a state and also be supportive of the Jewish people’s right. The notion that they are mutually exclusive is false. The idea that to support Palestinian rights must mean that the Jewish people’s right must therefore be negated is wrong. And the corollary that to affirm our people’s right to self-determination must mean that Palestinian rights must then be denied is also wrong. People mistakenly think they cannot champion both Jewish and Palestinian rights. But that is not of course the larger problem. Then again perhaps it is part of the problem. People think, I have to choose sides. I am either for the Palestinians or for the State of Israel.

A growing number on the left, both here and now in England, think however that the real conflict is that Zionism is a distortion of Judaism. This could not be farther from the truth. Moreover such an idea is antisemitic. And antisemitism must be called out. Whether it is an offensive carnival float in Belgium in which Hasidic Jews are depicted with money and a rat or words by a representative from the political party you call your own, it must be called out. In fact if you call yourself a Democrat then you have even more responsibility to call out such antisemitism within your own ranks. It’s easy, and perhaps gratifying or at the very least affirming, when it is found on the other side of the aisle, but it’s even more important when it comes from the side for whom you voted. You cannot look the other way most especially when it comes from within your own ranks.

On the left there is this growing tendency to separate the Jewish people from one of our chief commitments and devotions, namely Israel. And I will have none of this. It is antisemitic to say Israel does not belong in the Middle East. It is antisemitc to say our devotion to Israel makes our commitment to this country suspect. It is antisemitic to say that Judaism has little do with the land of Israel or Jerusalem or Zion.

This is why I am so proud that the Muslim leaders who participated in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative came to Jerusalem to learn about why Israel—that is the modern and the ancient Israel—is so important and so integral to the Jewish people. And this is exactly what Representative Omar does not seem to get. She should similarly go to Israel and see it for herself. And she could then even come back and say, “The US gives too much aid to Israel.” Or, “I don’t want US dollars to be used at West Bank checkpoints.” Or, “I disagree with what the AIPAC lobbyists who met with me this afternoon said.” I might argue with her if she said such things—and I imagine such arguments would be quite heated, but that would be within her rights as a representative. That would even be in keeping with her responsibilities. She is not however doing anything even approaching this.

Her words are antisemitic. Moreover her antisemitism cannot be excused because she has suffered anti-Muslim attacks as for example what happened in West Virginia where she was likened to Islamist extremists who perpetrated 9-11. She should also not get a pass because she is a freshman in Congress. Antisemitism is antisemitism. It is the same whether it’s a Republican or Democrat, a liberal or conservative, the old or the young.

I don’t know what is in Representative Omar’s heart. I can never know that. I do not know what motives her. I can certainly judge her words and her actions. And on that count she comes ups woefully lacking. And that brings me to this week’s Torah portion. We read that the Israelites finished building the tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that accompanied them on their wanderings. The Israelites gladly donate to this project, giving of themselves in order to complete the project. The problem is that they had the exact same intention when they gave beforehand to another project. That time it was to build the golden calf. And that was of course the greatest sin the Israelites ever committed.

The Talmud comments: “One cannot understand the nature of this people. If they are appealed to for a calf, they give. If appealed to for the Tabernacle, they give.” (Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim) Both acts are motivated by the people’s desire to give. If we were to judge these acts by their motivations we might claim they were both good. They are of course not in any way the same. One is entirely sinful and the other entirely good.

People say that politicians on the left, such as Representative Omar, are motivated by their desire to seek justice for the Palestinians. And alleviating the suffering of Palestinians—the Gaza strip is for example becoming increasingly uninhabitable— is a noble goal. Alleviating suffering is always of course an unqualified good. This may or not be what is motivating Representative Omar. The larger issue is that this is entirely beside the point. Antisemitism is a sin and that’s all there is to it.

I pray. May we find the strength to say antisemitism is a sin in a loud and clear voice. May we find the courage to say this whether it is directed at our friends or neighbors, whether it is directed at leaders who agree with us on all other matters or leaders who disagree with us on every manner of thing. Antisemitism is a sin and that’s all there is to it. This is something that must never be papered over by high minded intentions.

Antisemitism is a sin and that’s all there is to it. Say this loudly. Say this clearly.    

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Finishing the World

The ancient rabbis taught that God intentionally left creation incomplete. On most days I find this teaching inspiring and even comforting.

God granted us free will. God left creation unfinished, leaving room in the world for us to act. God in effect bowed out of each and every detail in this world so that our actions might be our own and so that we might enhance creation. The Kabbalists added to this notion when they argued that God withdrew from the world. Otherwise, they reasoned, God’s presence would overwhelm us. If God did not withdraw, there would be no room for anything but God.

God made this imperfect world so that there would be the necessity for us to get involved, a call for us to improve ourselves and better the world. God wants us to do more.

But after weeks and months of reading the news, of poring over the details about antisemitism, terror attacks, gun violence and climate change, I find myself wishing, and praying, that God would just fix this mess and repair creation. I find myself wanting to retreat into the poetry of prayer.

At this moment I feel willing to forgo a measure of free will if God were to reorder things, right such terrible wrongs, heal the many injustices we see about us and mend this broken world. How nice that would be. How soothing.

But prayer cannot fix the brokenness between us. Perhaps it can mend an individual soul but never a nation. It cannot repair hatred. Prayer cannot rebuild the glaciers. Instead it offers a respite. Prayer provides a goad to action. It must inspire us to act.

This week we read about the completion of the Tabernacle: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…” (Exodus 40)

The tabernacle was the vehicle by which God led the people on their journeys. It became synonymous with our house of prayer. In fact the Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan, is related to the Hebrew “to dwell” which is connected to one of our tradition’s names for God, Shechinah. This is the name that we use when we want to suggest God’s presence is near and felt. And all of this is tied to the building of the mishkan, tabernacle. All of this is tied to the work that we do.

God only dwells when we do the hard work. God is only felt when we do the mending with our own hands.

The Torah also suggests an additional meaning by its choice of words for Moses finishing the work. The Hebrew, “vay’khal,” means to complete or even to perfect. By this word choice it draws our attention to the creation account when God finished that first, although imperfect, building project: “…the heaven and the earth were finished.” There is of course meaning to be found in this comparison.

When we build and create, as Moses and the people did with the mishkan, we imitate God and God’s creation. Part of our creative efforts must be to complete and perfect creation, to bring a measure of holiness into our lives and a measure of goodness to the world.

Making or dreaming up something new is the greatest of human achievements. It is what makes us uniquely human—and perhaps most like God. It is how we achieve repair. We reach for perfection. Albert Einstein said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

I pray that God will fix our world. And yet, I cannot rely on prayer alone.

We must work to fix our world.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Do Not Kindle Anger

Following the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle we find the command not to work on Shabbat. We are forbidden from performing creative labors. Just as we built the tabernacle so too do we build what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls a “palace in time.” We accomplish this by refraining from work. The rabbis in fact derive the list of forbidden Shabbat labors based on what was done to build the tabernacle.

It is a curious notion. We fashion a holy day by not doing. Sure, there is much that we are commanded to do on Shabbat: recite the kiddush, sing our prayers, read Torah, eat a grand meal to name a few, but the day’s spirit is created by saying no to a long list of labors. It is an exhaustive, and perhaps even tiresome, list of prohibitions.

Among these is the command: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35) This is among the more confusing commandments. People will often say, “Driving my car is not work. Turning on my lights is not a labor. Heating up soup on my stove top takes little effort. These are silly prohibitions.” The tradition, however, never defined these actions as work but instead as lighting a fire.

This is why we light the Shabbat candles eighteen minutes before sunset. If we were to do otherwise we would be lighting a fire on the sabbath day. Tomorrow night, for example, the candles are to be lit at 5:27 pm (in Oyster Bay, Long Island).

And yet these are not the rules that govern my Jewish life. We will light the candles at the beginning of our Shabbat services around 7 pm. Better to wait until the congregation is sits together in the sanctuary. Better to gather the family, if even for a brief moment, before everyone goes off to their myriad of activities, and light the candles together. Perhaps this occurs at 6:25 pm. Perhaps in the long months of June this moment is at 5:15 pm (well before the prescribed candle lighting time of 8:11 pm). Better not to worry about exactitudes. Better to gather together.

Shabbat is about bringing us together.

Then again if we say yes to everything and say no to little if anything, can we really build a palace in time?

The rabbis being rabbis of course did not limit their interpretations to fires and flames. They also understood fire to mean anger. I welcome their wisdom.

I imagine a day without anger.

Sometimes we get angry with those we love. Our families can be frustrating, but—I hope—never angering. Too often we allow frustrations to grow into anger. Banish those as well on Shabbat. One day a week—at the very least—command such emotions: you are not welcome at our Shabbat table.

Fashion a sanctuary.

There is plenty to be angry with these days. The news provides us with a multitude of examples. Can we find one day without heaving the remote control at the TV (and the Jets are not even playing during these weeks!) or throwing the newspaper on the floor in disgust or screaming at another email from a friend who sees the world’s events through different eyes? Is this possible? Can we fashion a day without the incessant barrage of notifications and alerts? Can the week’s outrage, and disgust, be forbidden? Is a day of Shabbat menuchah—a day of rest—within our reach?

Can our anger be banished for at least one day?

It is within our hands.

“You shall kindle no fire on the sabbath day.”

No fires of anger shall be kindled on this day.

And then perhaps all days. And then, our tradition dreams, the world.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Failing to Peace

When interviewing for jobs people compile resumes that feature their career highlights, focusing on their many successes. Promotions are featured. Rewards are delineated. Missteps are reframed. Brief tenures are deleted. A recent The New York Times article suggests that we would be better served, and grow and learn even more, if we also tallied a failure resume.

Tim Herrera writes:
Keeping a failure resume — or Anti‑Portfolio or CV of Failures or whatever you’d like to call it — is simple: When you fail, write it down. But instead of focusing on how that failure makes you feel, take the time to step back and analyze the practical, operational reasons that you failed. Did you wait until the last minute to work on it? Were you too casual in your preparation? Were you simply out of your depth? There are countless things that can go wrong when we’re trying to accomplish our goals or advance our careers. But those things are opportunities, not derailments.
I wonder. Perhaps the entire Bible should be viewed as a failure resume. A favorite example. The greatest king, David, has an affair with Bathsheba. When he discovers she has become pregnant, David has her husband Uriah, a loyal army officer, killed. The prophet Nathan confronts David and exposes his sin. King David acknowledges his misdeeds and repents. It is a surprising act—powerful leaders rarely admit their errors.

Could these biblical chapters serve David’s failure resume? Or is this instead the mark of great literature? And yet we learn more from David’s sins than from his many successes. Do his military victories offer us instruction or instead this moment when he acknowledges his wrongs? Our heroes are fallible. They are often quite ordinary and frequently all too human. That is how we learn from Bible. That is how we grow from their example.

Moses is given to anger. God can at times appear vengeful. So too is each and every person. The Bible’s failures are our greatest teachings.

Another frequently cited example. The Torah’s stated goal of bringing the Jewish people to the land of Israel is never achieved. Moses dies, and the Torah concludes, before our ancestors cross over the Jordan River. Is this also a catastrophic failure or like each and every person’s life? Who achieves all their goals? A lifetime is never really enough. Who achieves only success after success, strung one after the other as if in a finely polished resume?

Our lives offer many failures. Examine them. Recount them. And grow from them.

Even the Torah’s successes are nearly failures. Yes, the Jewish people are indeed freed from Egyptian slavery, but it takes ten attempts to convince Pharaoh to let them go. (Is God learning on the job?) And then, soon after gaining their freedom and while waiting for Moses to return from communing with God, the people grow impatient and build an idol. Rather than discouraging them, Aaron tells them to bring him their gold and silver. (Exodus 32)

I imagine a job interview. “Aaron, you apparently feel you are ready to take on a more decisive leadership role. Tell us about that time Moses left you in charge for forty days.” Aaron reframes the episode. He casts it as a success. “The people were on the verge of rioting. They were scared. We were in the middle of the desert. We had little food and water. Moses went off to do one of his ‘I need to talk with God for a few days.’ After a few weeks I decided to refocus the people’s attention so they would not kill each other. Better to give them something to build, I decided.”

The rabbis agree with Aaron’s retelling. They advise: “Be of the disciples of Aaron loving peace and pursuing it.” (Avot 1). Aaron concludes the interview. “It was then that I realized my greatest skill. I am a peacemaker.” Is this week’s Golden Calf episode a failure? Or a success?

Is peace a failure? Perhaps that is the secret. Peace is the recognition that a long hoped for goal will not be achieved (100% security!?), and that our failure to reach that once all-important objective, must be reframed as a success.

We edit our story. The Torah concludes. We refashion our goals. The rabbis imagine. “Enough of blood and tears.”

Is compromise a failure? Aaron thinks not. Others think so.

Is peace a failure? Perhaps it must be. Still it is a resume I dream of reading.

Our failures are not derailments. They are instead opportunities.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Antisemitism, Tweets and Critiques

I have received many emails during the past week regarding Representative Ilhan Omar’s antisemitic tweets. Some were from the many organizations I support. Others were from friends and congregants.

My Republican friends write, “See I told you so. The Democrats hate Israel. They provide fertile ground for a growing antisemitism among liberals.” My Democratic friends, however, find antisemitism on the other side of the aisle and write, “See I told you so. President Trump continues to offer oxygen to racists, neo-Nazis and white extremists.”

Antisemitic hatred grows. Its venom is heard more and more. It exists on both the right and left. It can be found among Democratic and Republican supporters. I remain perplexed. Why must every instance of antisemitism be used as confirmation of one’s vote? Why must every discussion of this resurgent problem begin with the words, “See I told you so.”?

Antisemitism is an increasing threat. Let us be clear and unified about this fact....

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Biggest and Best Sanctuary

Where can God best be discovered?

The Bible offers a multiplicity of answers. It is as my teacher once remarked a symphony of voices. King Solomon suggests we find God in the Temple. The prophet Isaiah among those who care for the downtrodden and oppressed. The psalmist turns to God’s creation.

Moses too first meets God in nature. Of course he discovers God in the most ordinary, and perhaps even lowly, of places—a bush. (Is this to suggest that people can find God anywhere and everywhere if Moses first sees God in a bush? Or is it to teach that people need to develop a Moses-like intuition so that they might discern God’s presence in even the most ordinary of places?)

Mary Oliver writes: “The god of dirt came up to me many times and said so many wise and delectable things, I lay on the grass listening…”

The psalmist affirms her insight. These poets give voice to Moses’ discovery. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Psalm 19)

And yet we spend most of our efforts expressing our religiosity in a man-made sanctuary. The synagogue, and the centrality of the prayer services we offer there, appear to suggest that within these walls is where we can best sense God’s presence. Do any of the words we pray, however, even mention this sanctuary?

We gather in the synagogue and sing, “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues fully of joy in countless waves …we could never thank You adequately, Adonai.” We may gather together in this sacred space but our thoughts are elsewhere. We lean on nature to bring us closer to God’s presence.

Why then would God command us to build a tabernacle? Why would God insist that the Israelites build a sanctuary when wandering in the wilderness? Why would God demand that we find gold and silver, blue and crimson yarns, dolphin and ram skins, acacia wood and lapis lazuli to build a holy structure?

Why would God offer the command, emblazoned above our synagogue’s ark? “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) Do we really need to build something so elaborate and grand in order to sense God’s presence?

Again and again I find my way back to the Hasidic masters. Their synagogues were converted homes. Their sanctuaries were unadorned basements. They ventured into the forest to commune with God. They taught: nothing made by human hands could ever be grand enough. God cannot be confined to any one place.

Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk remarks, “It says ‘among them’ and not ‘among it,’ to teach you that each person must build the sanctuary in his own heart; then God will dwell among them.”

There really is only one sanctuary that must be built, and rebuilt, over and over again.

It is the human heart.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Judaism & Abortion Rights

Let’s talk about the Jewish view of abortion and abortion rights.

The Talmud offers the following gruesome counsel: “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth, one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.” (Mishnah Oholot 7)

Two insights emerge from this text. If a woman’s life is in danger then abortion is permitted—and even demanded. Jewish authorities continue to debate what might constitute a threat to the mother’s life. More traditional authorities argue only a physical threat, more liberal offer expansive interpretations, including psychological dangers. The second insight however is the more significant and informative for our contemporary debate. The mother’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus.

As I listen to today’s abortion debates I find myself growing increasingly agitated. My religious commitments are offended when others place the life of the fetus over that of the mother. I believe otherwise. My tradition teaches me that the mother’s life takes precedence. My deeply held religious conviction tells me that it is demeaning of women to hold that the mother’s life is of equal value to that of the developing fetus. Despite this I recognize that others have different religious convictions. The strength of this great nation is the belief that different, and even competing, religious convictions are allowed not only to coexist but even flourish.

The fetus is of course sacred and must be treated with care and concern. It is a potential life. Its value must not be brushed aside. Its value must not be treated in a cavalier manner. Nonetheless when its potential life threatens the actual life of the mother it becomes of secondary importance. Despite the debate among Jewish authorities regarding what constitutes a threat to the life of the mother, all agree that the mother’s life is of greater importance. The mother and fetus become two lives of equal value when the baby’s head emerges. Until that moment the mother’s life takes precedence. And that is what Judaism teaches, and that is what I firmly believe.

Yet a woman’s body (as well as a man’s) is not entirely her own. Our tradition also teaches that our bodies belong to God. We cannot do whatever we want to our bodies. My religious convictions are equally offended when people speak of their bodies as if they created them, as if they control them. They are instead entrusted to us. We are commanded to care for them. We do not own them. Even our bodies are divine gifts.

This is what I learn from our Jewish tradition. My faith demands the conviction that our bodies are sacred, human life is holy, but as well that a mother’s life is of greater importance than the potential life of the fetus she carries. I first discover this in this week’s portion. “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21)

Here we learn that monetary compensation is offered for an accidental miscarriage. In the Torah the intentional taking of a human life constitutes a capital crime. No compensation could suffice. Only the death penalty could rebalance the scales. That the Torah does not require this is evidence of the Jewish position regarding abortion.

In addition, the meaning of an eye for an eye is not meant literally but instead figuratively. We are to determine the value of an eye. We are to calculate a fair monetary compensation for the injury. There is a profound confusion about this point. In contemporary culture an eye for an eye is instead used when speaking about exacting vengeance. Use of this biblical phrase suggests a veneer of justice, and is too often misused to justify military action. This is not how our tradition understands this phrase. We discover a great deal within the interpretation.

Different religious traditions often understand the same words in different manners.

People speak as if their convictions are the beginning and end of all debate. They speak as if their religious beliefs are the determinants for all and that their interpretations are the only legitimate readings.

I prefer however to look to my own faith for guidance and counsel. There I discover much to inform our current debates. There my religious convictions are restored.

My faith begins, and ends, with my tradition’s interpretations. My understanding however draws a wider circle, and includes the interpretations of others people’s religious convictions.

I wish we could find more room for our different interpretations to live side by side.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Mountains of Obligation, Mountains of Meaning

There are two competing rabbinic versions regarding how the Torah was given on Mount Sinai.

In one interpretation God first offers the Torah to the other nations of the world. One objects to stealing. Another nation to murder. And yet a third to adultery. Each refuses to accept the Torah. With no one else, God approaches the people of Israel, offering the engraved Torah and all of its requirements. The Jewish people say, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) Aside from this tale’s pejorative sting, the legend suggests that accepting the Torah was a choice. We freely chose the Torah and affirmed its obligations.

Another rabbinic story offers a radically different account. In this midrash, God holds Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites and declares, “Either accept the Torah and its laws and statutes or die.” The Jewish people wisely accept the Torah and thereby discover life. This account offers a disturbing image of God. Here God is portrayed as coercive and threatening.

Often, when I share these interpretations, people gravitate towards the first rabbinic legend. Few even find fault with the negative descriptions of the other nations. People want to see their Torah as freely chosen, as our faith and the Jewish commitments that derive from them as brimming with freedom and choice. God said, “Remember the Sabbath day.” And we then observe. And we thereby discover meaning.

But lately I have been thinking that we are not as free as we think.

Ask anyone what gives their life the greatest meaning. Will they say, “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want; I can go to the gym at 11 pm; I can go out to dinner with friends on any evening of the week.”? I doubt such will be their answers. Instead people will say, “My children. My family. My charity work.” More often than not it is those things which involve others that add meaning to our lives. It is that which involves obligation. It is our commitment to others that grants life its greatest meaning.

Are we really free? Are our choices made with complete disregard for those we love, for those we obligate ourselves towards? Is a life of meaning built around choice or obligation?

Then again, who would want to choose something with a mountain hanging over their heads? The choice is coerced. It is tainted.

Is it truly? Can our choices be entirely free? Is the freedom to choose an illusion? Can we really make choices that are devoid of outside influences? Can we disregard family? Friends? Should we cast aside obligation? Perhaps the rabbinic legend is correct.

With every choice there is indeed a mountain suspended over our heads. At times we disregard it and pretend heaviness does not exist. Lately I have come to believe that is better to affirm its pull and allow meaning to be gained by the weight of its obligation and commitment.

The mountain may indeed be frightening and at times even feel coercive, but it can also be meaningful.

The weight of obligation provides life’s greatest meaning.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Mary Oliver z"l

One of my favorite, and most loved, poets, Mary Oliver died this morning.

This week the Torah offers us the most famous of poems, the Song of the Sea, which contains the words we sing every time we gather for services: Mi Chamocha—“Who is like you O God, among the gods that are worshiped? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?” (Exodus 15)

And so in honor of this Shabbat Shirah—the Sabbath of songs and poems—and in gratitude to the many Mary Oliver poetry books that line my shelves and have accompanied me on so many journeys and offered me solace in the most unexpected of locales and uplifted me when I discovered my faith lacking, I offer two of her poems.
On Traveling to Beautiful Places
Every day I’m still looking for God
and I’m still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
Certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand
each with its own set of creatures
and God, by whatever name.
How perfect to be aboard a ship with
maybe a hundred years still in my pocket.
But it’s late, for all of us,
and in truth the only ship there is
is the ship we are all on
burning the world as we go.
Yes! I am still searching as well.

I recall that next week we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the new year for trees, so again I turn to one of Mary Oliver’s teachings.
Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way
If you’re John Muir you want trees to
live among. If you’re Emily, a garden
will do.
Try to find the right place for yourself.
If you can’t find it, at least dream of it.
When one is alone and lonely, the body
gladly lingers in the wind or rain,
or splashes into the cold river, or
pushes through the ice-crusted snow.
Anything that touches.
God, or the gods, are invisible, quite
understandable. But holiness is visible,
entirely.
Some words will never leave God’s mouth,
no matter how hard you listen.
In all the works of Beethoven, you will
not find a single lie.
All important ideas must include the trees,
the mountains, and the rivers.
To understand many things you must reach out
of your own condition.
For how many years did I wander slowly
through the forest. What wonder and
glory I would have missed had I ever been
in a hurry!
Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still
it explains nothing.
The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.
The world and its beauty can indeed both shout and whisper. Perhaps all I need to do is slow down and listen. Yes, all important ideas must include the natural world. Still so much remains a mystery. The poet is right.

You are you.

And all you have is your integrity.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

God's Burning Truth

Rabbi Menahem Mendl (1787-1859) was a controversial Hasidic teacher who led a community in Kotzk (Kock, Poland) for twelve years. He is often called the Kotzker rebbe.

Reb Menahem Mendl was, however, never fully comfortable in this leadership role. When followers came to visit, hoping to hear some of their master’s teachings, he would only occasionally come out of his study. And when he did, he would then chase these students away. His dream was to develop fifty worthy disciples who would attain the spiritual level of the prophets. He of course never achieved this goal and instead spent his remaining twenty years in seclusion.

He was a master without a congregation.

He was so intoxicated with God that he found little time for people. He was uncompromising. His goal was absolute perfection. Menahem Mendl disdained half measures. He believed in a radical approach, stating that it was better to be completely wicked than to be partially good and partially wicked. His singular goal was absolute truth and complete authenticity. Falsehood and complacency were antithetical to a worthy religious life. Conformity and social conventions were obstacles that needed to be trampled. He was known to say, “Give me just ten disciples who will follow me to the desert, eat manna and forsake this decadent world.”

His obsessions led him to perform an unusual custom. Every year, prior to Passover, he burned his writings along with the bread. And yet there are a number of sayings and teachings ascribed to him. He taught: “People are accustomed to look at the heavens and wonder what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves to see what happens there.”

Look within for truth.

To the Kotzker rebbe, there is no escaping God’s demands or God’s presence. He saw God everywhere and anywhere.

Even this week’s portion points to more than the plagues it describes. Why does the portion open with such a curious word? God commands Moses to “Come to Pharaoh” rather than “Go to Pharaoh.” Menahem Mendl comments:
The Torah does not say, lekh—go—to Pharaoh, but bo—come. The reason for this usage is because one cannot go from God; one cannot move away from God for God is everywhere. Therefore, God told Moses, “come,” or in other words, “Come with Me, for I will be with you wherever you are.”
We cannot escape God’s presence. We cannot escape God’s demands.

It is enough to drive a person mad. Perhaps this is why Menahem Mendl shooed disciples away and sought to destroy his legacy by burning his writings. He was tormented by God’s truth.

God’s demands are overwhelming. Truth burns at the soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explores Menahem Mendl of Kotzk’s teachings in his extraordinary book, A Passion for Truth. Heschel observes:
We recall him still, Reb Mendl of Kotzk. He has not fled from us by dying. Somehow his lightning persists. His words throw flames whenever they come into our orbit. They burn. Who can bear them? Yet many of us shall thereby shed our masks, our pretensions and jealousies, our distorted notions, and then messianic redemption may approach its beginning. 
What did the Kotzker leave behind? He published no books, left no records; what he wrote he burned. Yet he taught us never to say farewell to Truth; for God laughs at those who think that falseness is inevitable. He also enabled us to face wretchedness and survive. For Truth is alive, dwelling somewhere, never weary. And all of mankind is needed to liberate it.
Where is the Kotzker rebbe when he is most needed?

He has secluded himself—once again.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

God Only Wants One Thing from Us

People call God by many different names.

Allah. Vishnu. Almighty.

Buddha. Jesus. Tao.

Adonai.


God calls people to do one simple thing:

Do good.

And typically adds some advice:

Stick together.

And very often offers a warning:

Beware of them and their ideas.

And we are still trying to figure out how to follow this simple command....